In the last couple of days, several people I know have brought up (separately) the fact that for kids these days there is very much a ‘everyone’s a winner’ culture. I never had that growing up. You won or you lost. You got first place or you got second or you were the runner up. Or you were everyone else that tried hard and didn’t get a ribbon. Or you were 10th in your class. There weren’t ‘participation’ awards. Showing up was not enough; you had to try your hardest. And even if you did, that was no guarantee of doing well.
This culture of my childhood taught me that hard work was the only way to get ahead in life. Showing up to life was not going to make you successful. You had to work for it. And sometimes you were going to fail. And that’s good. Failure is how you learn. If you are told that no matter what you do is good and okay and you get a shinny ribbon for it, you are never going to want to try harder. You are never going to do better. You are never going to work.
I learned that if I didn’t work, I didn’t get ahead. That understanding carried me through four university degrees. I look at kids these days and I’m not sure if they have it in them to get through life. I’m not sure they have a working culture and a try harder culture built into them.
But I’m not a teacher. I’m not even a parent. And I’ve been told time and again that that means I don’t get to make comments about what’s good for children.
[We’re ignoring the fact I was a child once.]
But what I do know is that the reality of life is stark and brutal. It’s not all participation awards. It’s not all ‘show up and get a pat on the back’. There are times that no matter how hard you try in life it won’t be enough. You’ll fail the exam. You’ll miss the award. You will just not get the thing because there are 300 people trying for the thing and only one person is going to get it. And someone’s going to just flip a coin to figure that out. You can try your hardest; life can still be down to luck of the draw.
I’m not sure they teach that nowadays. But I’m grateful I learned it early on in life. I’m doubly grateful because I grew up with a lot of opportunities and a lot of chances, and a above average IQ. I grew up with good schools and good support systems. But that doesn’t automatically equate to ‘fantastic easy life’. Reality doesn’t work that way.
So I try my hardest in what I do. And I know that sometimes that’s not enough. Sometimes it will never be enough. But I know that. And when I do ‘fail’ I’ve learned not to blame myself. If I did my best, then that’s all I can do. Sometimes failure happens anyways. Sometimes you lose anyways. Not everyone wins.
But there’s this one part of a PhD that didn’t mesh with that. That I struggled with all the way through. Because I knew some people were just not meant to do a PhD. Some people don’t have the opportunity and/or the work ethic to do it. Some people aren’t meant for university in general. That’s fine. I wish they told more kids that, because maybe fewer would get to university and flunk out, because they are told all along that you must go. But I digress.
The thing that never quite meshed with my understanding that people do ‘fail’ or leave their PhDs is that, even though I was trying my hardest, even though I knew I might not get my PhD, I felt failure. Constant failure. I felt that I was to blame. I felt that I wasn’t good enough. It was the first time I had tried my damnedest in life and still felt…not good enough. Still felt like I was losing. That I was failing. And I blamed myself.
This perpetual feeling of inadequacy hung over my head for four years. And I know it hangs over the heads of many other PhD students. It’s one of those things we don’t really talk about. The feeling that no matter how hard we try, we’re still not good enough to be here. To be doing this. To get our PhDs. In ours heads, we already feel a bit like we’ve failed, before we ever even get far enough in our PhDs to do any actual ‘failing’.
It’s hard to deal with that psychologically. It’s hard to live with that day in and day out. If you fail at something and you did your best, you can work through that. You will probably still be disappointed, but if you did your best, you did your best.
During a PhD, doing your best never feels good enough. You always feel like you should be working harder (even though you know you can’t). You feel like everyone else around you is better at this than you are. You constant feel like a failure.
People who have never been to university or never done a PhD seem to wonder why doing a PhD is so stressful. Why people have breakdowns or leave their PhDs half-finished. Or end up depressed.
I’ll tell you why. Because feeling like a failure every day is impossible to live with and not suffer consequences. Because no matter what you tell yourself in your head, that feeling doesn’t go away until you are holding your PhD degree in your hand. And by then, you’ve dealt with it for years. And the consequences of it.
This post is not meant to be overly optimistic. But what it is meant to do is to tell all of you people out there doing your PhDs, who feel like they aren’t good enough to do it, aren’t good enough to get it, aren’t good enough to be there, that you most definitely are. If you do your best, that’s what matters. And like everything else in life, doing your best does not automatically equate to success. But doing your best is all you can do, and you need to tell yourself that every day. It’s enough for you. It doesn’t matter what the result is. You deserve to be doing this. You deserve to be there. Whatever happens, work your very hardest every day and do your very best, and forgive yourself for what comes next. It’s not your fault. You are most certainly adequate.